I know this is nerdy, but stay with me - I think you'll like it.
One of the great things about having grown up in a musical family is that either my brother or my dad (or both) clued me in to the glory that is an isolated vocal track. An isolated vocal track is exactly what it sounds like it's going to be - a song you know, but without the music - just the singing.
Some might call this "a cappella," but it's not, really - a cappella music is intentionally sung without music, while these isolated vocal tracks were originally sung WITH music. Only now, the music has been taken out, so only the vocals are left.
The difference is that when a singer performs a song a cappella, he or she is very concerned with hitting notes exactly right, variations in volume, etc. - they know that whatever they sing is ALL the audience will hear, and they don't have any music to rely on. But when a singer sings to a backing track, sometimes they get lazy and depend on the instrumentation to beef up their performance.
Listening to an isolated vocal (especially older ones like these, pre-autotune), gives you an idea of just how talented these performers were. These tracks are so compelling, such technically and emotionally rich performances, that you really don't need music at all.
1. Michael Jackson - Billie Jean
First up, one of the greats. This is a fun one to start with because Michael Jackson had all kinds of little chirps and "Woo's!" that make it super entertaining to listen to. Rumor has it that when Michael recorded music, he asked that the recording booth be pitch black dark except for a single spotlight where the microphone would be. So the engineers would see him pop up to sing, then for the next 8 bars or so he'd totally disappear because he was dancing around the booth in the dark, only to reappear to sing his next part.
The King of Pop, everyone:
2. Queen and David Bowie - Under Pressure
This may actually be the greatest isolated vocal of all time, so I'm sorry I put it so early in the list. But I'm not sorry that you're about to have your brain melted. The creative choices that these two geniuses make - it's pretty out of this world.
3. The Beach Boys - Wouldn't It Be Nice
If you haven't seen the movie Love and Mercy, which is based on Brian Wilson's life, you should go rent it right now. It's so moving, and tells the fascinating story of how Pet Sounds, one of the best albums of all time, was created. Listening to these young guys sing their guts out on this track is really special.
4. Whitney Houston - How Will I Know?
There really isn't even anything that needs to be said about this, except for WHITNEY WE LOVE YOU AND WE MISS YOU. This freakin' excellence speaks for itself.
Just LISTEN to how good she is. I mean, seriously. It's not even right.
5. Beyonce - Love On Top LIVE
Keep in mind that she is live, meaning she's probably also dancing around the stage and NAILING. EVERY. NOTE. Beyonce is not a real person. She is a beautiful robot from another planet sent to remind us that we are not worthy.
And because I am feeling shady this morning...we'll throw this in just to compare with the greats.
"But she's singing live, Mary Catherine!"
Yeah, so is Bey. (To be fair, she does nail it at the end - but it, you know, takes a few tries.)
Have a fantastic weekend, people! Go listen to some good music! So much love -